As I prepare to do my first international travel I have to admit, I’m a little nervous. My deepest fear is living up to the stereotype of Americans when they travel. Stories show up often about the Rude American who expected everyone to speak English, is rude, and trashed the place only to leave.I think about that a lot as I write obsidian. My fears of being disrespectful to another culture. One day, something hit me and really calmed me. There is a huge difference between being a tourist and a guest.
When I visit NYC I’m astounded by tourists. They are rude, impatient,and walk slowly. They gawk at everything, are highly demanding, and don’t understand the unwritten rules of NYC culture. When I went I researched it for weeks and was staying with a local. Everywhere I went with him I could feel a divide. There was time square and place like that that New Yorkers avoided like the plague and there was the hidden gems, the shortcuts, the culture of taxis that many of the tourist didn’t seem to understand.
Over the years many people in my life have asked how to join Black spaces respectfully. The goal is always to Join the space and not change it with their presence. They always express nervousness and discomfort, as they are often unaccustomed with being the minority in a room. This one’s for you!
Be a GUEST not a TOURIST.
Another way to say this is to join the culture of the space that you are in, instead of expecting it to mold around you. I’m gonna be focused on Black spaces but feel free to apply the general rules to any space you don’t know.
Research. Research. Research. Just like you look up the dress code before trying a new physical activity or restaurant, you should get a overall feeling of the space BEFORE you get there. Some easy questions to ask and find out before arriving. Do they cater to food sensitivities? If you are allergic, intolerant or adverse to certain foods, find out if there are food options for you. Soul food, as example is often heavy with meat products and different fats and spices. Being gluten free may be difficult. Find out first, and eat before you go. You may find the community may make a personal dish in time, but don’t expect or demand it from the start.
What’s the dress code?
Don’t pull none of that white boy in cargo shorts in winter, no matter how “not cold” you are. It highlights you as an outsider at worse, at best you’ll be teased. DO get dressed up. And one level of formality to your dress as a general rule. Who should you talk to once arriving? IS this the kind of space where you need to check in with someone or is it free for all.
Do you need cash? Or credit? (bring cash just in case) Is the space conservative? (Probably) Act and dress accordingly. Does it start exactly on time? (Probably not) If you choose to get there on time are you ready for awkwardness? Help set up. If you just can’t be late. Ask what you can do. Are you actually allowed to be there? We can’t tell you to leave sometimes but you better believe joining the NAACP meeting for members only isn’t a good place to get your feet wet.
Be confident not arrogant. Nothing makes me feel more concerned than when a shy white person enters a Black space. First, it’s hard being shy in a culture of extroversion no matter who you are, but as a guest oriented culture and baggage from racism, many will feel obligated to make you feel better and resent that. It just highlights that you are foreigner and “shouldn’t” be there.
Walk in with a similar mindset of a job interview. Or a date. Nerves are ok. Fear is not.
Still feeling too afraid? Bring a friend. Preferably someone with knowledge of the community or at least how to code switch and follow their lead.
Ok, I’m here… now what?
You may noticed some frowns, or staring. It’s not personal. Imagine everyday people came into your house, wrecked it, insulted your grandma, got a noise complaint and slapped you as they left. After a while all strangers could be that person. Prove that’s not what you are there for by not doing those things and people will warm up to you. Often when white people will be disrespectful to a space either from rudeness or ignorance. Just because you don’t know the rules, doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
If you look lost or that you aren’t normally in the community, many things are set in motion even before you realize it. You’ll probably find that an elder woman comes over to greet you. Most likely she’s the matriarch. She will introduce you to the right people, get you connected and be warm and inviting. After that meting spend some time just getting used to the space, talking to elders and your peers.
Don’t say anything you wouldn’t to a white friend. Keep your hands to yourself no matter how much you feel called by the locs on that ladies head. If you have any awkward questions, this is not the time.
If you have something you want to say, speak up. in Black Culture are different than White culture. Unless an elder is speaking, speak loudly and passionately or be prepared to not be able to say much. Conversation is faster and interruptions are common. Interrupting is often not considered rude. The general rule is to speak up when you feel passionate. The more passion, the louder the voice. Use rules of deferment if two of you happen to be trying to speak at the same time with the same volume. IF, you don’t feel comfortable with speaking out, either sit with a peer your age, or non verbally communicate you are having trouble speaking up. Although they may tease you about it, they will help you stay in the conversation. If that isn’t working you may also find the eldest woman helping you, but this is most often only done for children.
Just like how, in my experience, many of the White Americans in my life choose wit and puns as a way to show prowess and command over their language, Black culture has its own version of this. I find that straight out puns are not as common, but what replaces it is lighthearted humor towards each other. Since the conversation speed is ramped up, the game in a lot of ways, is to try to have the best one liners, the fastest. Although this teasing can feel personal, it’s often not. If, it touches a nerve with you, do speak up, PRIVATELY, and let them know the joke went to far. Keep in mind how Black culture tend to generalize. Many jokes or teasing have multiple layers and it’s ok not to get them all the time.
Things not to Joke about:
- How Black someone is or isn’t
- Using AAVE
- The N-word (soft A or Hard R)
- Your elder, to their face
On a whole Black Culture tends to be more private and selective about what and how things should be discussed. You may find that some topics are avoided or simply not focused on as much as others are. An easy example if the question “what do you do?”. In White American Culture it is commonly one of the first things asked, for various reasons. In Black culture it’s not. (I have some theories on why I’ll expand in a later article) You are much more likely to be asked about artistic/passionate or community building topics. Instead of conversations being more of an interview, It’s assumed that as you grow closer you will learn the mundane details about each other like, what you do, family, finances, ect. Although seemingly innocuous, honestly if you and your new friend only see each other one time a month your friendship isn’t really build upon those details but your passions and interests. An exception is elders may ask you about this early on.
Another area where privacy becomes really important is call outs. A big part of Black Culture is about saving face. Essentially like many other collectivist cultures being shamed has more weight in Black culture. If you feel shamed or need to tell someone something that might be shameful, or even awkward it’s best to be done in private. Be blunt, straightforward and polite.
These are just general rules and ideas that I’ve noticed that are commonly not as often found in white American Culture. This is clearly not an exhaustive list but more of a jumping off point to help you avoid some major faux pas. If you haven’t read some of the other basics of Black Culture articles you can read them in the suggested article at the end of this page.
Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments below!